Are We Actually Going To Let Industry Heads Advocate Texting in Theaters?
There's nothing more enraging to me as a moviegoer than that dreaded moment when, in the middle of a movie, the unmistakable, un-ignorable glow of a cell phone screen cuts through the glorious darkness in my field of vision and takes me out of the viewing experience. Texting, sexting, checking emails, Tweeting -- I don't care what your excuse is, it's not okay to ruin everyone else's experience by using your phone (or talking or shaking the entire row of seats with your nervous-boredom knee jiggle or letting your stank feet air out in the aisles or snoring, you selfish prick.) So why would theater owners or studio heads, whose job it is to deliver an enjoyable movie-going experience to their paying customers, ever even entertain the notion of allowing or encouraging texting in a movie theater?
That's just what some members on a panel discussion entitled “An Industry Think Tank: Meeting the Expectations of Today’s Savvy Moviegoer” at CinemaCon reportedly proposed today in a conversation about issues facing the industry. Deadline's David Lieberman reports:
Regal Entertainment CEO Amy Miles says that her chain currently discourages cell phone use “but if we had a movie that appealed to a younger demographic, we could test some of these concepts.” For example, she says that the chain talked about being more flexible about cell phone use at some screens that showed 21 Jump Street. “You’re trying to figure out if there’s something you can offer in the theater that I would not find appealing but my 18 year old son” might.
You know what else these hypothetical teenagers want when they go to a movie? To see R-rated boobs and sneak into other movies without paying, so let's just let them do all of that, too.
IMAX’s Greg Foster seemed to like the idea of relaxing the absolute ban on phone use in theaters. His 17 year old son “constantly has his phone with him,” he says. “We want them to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie. But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their own existence.” Banning cell phone use may make them “feel a little handcuffed.”
To which I say: Handcuff those kids! Teach them some self-control, for goodness sake. And what does it mean when the IMAX guy is totally okay with his kid being on the phone in a movie? In an IMAX theater there's literally no room in your field of vision to look at anything else, but interrupting your experience to look down and text is cool?
Which brings me to the first issue here: Kids. Not the kids themselves per se, but the fact that pretty much the entire hypothetical justification for allowing cell phone use in theaters stems from an attempt to solve the issue of dwindling attendance by blaming the teenagers. You think every kid out there is so ADD-addled and attached to their iPhones that they won't or can't focus on a movie for two hours? (I mean, maybe.) Does that mean we should let them or anyone of any age do whatever they want in a theater? HELL NO.
Here's the thing: You can't just let The Text-Crazy Kids blaze up Facebook in a theater in order to boost box office without messing it up for everyone else -- and that includes the rest of us old people and that segment of the teenage populace that, you know, doesn't need to compulsively check their phones at the movies and maybe, just maybe, hates it as much as the rest of us when other people do it. To officially allow texting in a theater is to effectively encourage texting in a theater. And while folks like Miles might experiment with outside the box teen baiting strategies --and good luck to her in that -- how can you even effectively host a text-friendly screening? By offering specialty showtimes, a la Baby Brigade or 21 and Up screenings, maybe?
Who knows? Such an approach might just work, and I'm sure the theater owners would rejoice in the box office boom and bathe in the shower of gold coins and allowance money that followed. But here's my request, if it comes to that: Keep those screenings segregated and instill a text-friendly screening surcharge; if moviegoers MUST TEXT during a movie, make them pay extra for the privilege.
The real problem with this line of thinking, though, is its potential effect on film culture at large: Once texting is allowed, why not talking, or any of the plethora of bad theater behavior that could snowball from there? The thing is, texting in a movie isn't just an issue of allowing overstimulated kids needing to be plugged into their apps and social networks and conversations at all times; it's a far more problematic issue of engagement at the movies. And not just for the texters, who might be half-paying attention to a movie while chatting up their friends, but for those around them who deserve to be able to watch a film without interruption or distraction.
By encouraging texters to engage half-way with a film and allowing their bad behavior to ruin fellow moviegoers' ability to escape into the magic of the movies, we'd be killing the sanctity of film culture. Audiences will learn not to pay full attention to a film -- and if you can't focus on a film, how are you to appreciate it? Why come back to the movies every week if you care less and less about movies themselves?
The exhibition and studio pros at CinemaCon seem to care less about the greater impact on film culture in their desperation to increase ticket sales. Thank goodness for Tim League. His Alamo Drafthouse cinemas, headquartered in Austin, Texas, take pains to protect the filmgoing experience -- recall the infamous anti-texting video that went viral last year -- and at CinemaCon it seems he was the lone reported voice of reason on the issue:
“Over my dead body will I introduce texting into the movie theater,” [League] says. “I love the idea of playing around with a new concept. But that is the scourge of our industry… It’s our job to understand that this is a sacred space and we have to teach manners.” He says it should be “magical” to come to the cinema.
Note that in response to League's laudable declaration, Regal CEO Miles reportedly retorted that “one person’s opinion of magical isn’t the other’s.” In Miles' world, "magical" probably means "profitable." In other news, remind me to never patronize a Regal theater again.
Going to the movies should be a magical experience, even for those casual ticket-buyers who just want to escape for two hours and who go to the cineplex maybe five times a year. My two favorite theaters in the world, League's Drafthouse and L.A.'s New Beverly Cinema, notably enforce a no-talking, no-cell phone policy because the people who run them and their patrons, for the most part, agree that movie-watching is a special experience. They love the movies, and I'm not sure I can say that Miles and Foster proved at CinemaCon that they do, too. Movies are meant to transport, and by their nature that's an intimate relationship between art and receiver. You should never have to compromise your movie-going experience because of some fidgety asshat in the row in front of you.
So: Am I alone in this, or do other people have to fight the urge to wrestle texters' cell phones out of their hands during a movie and hurl them at the wall whenever that dreaded light illuminates the dark? And at what point should we become alarmed if industry execs keep batting these ideas around to boost ticket sales?
Photo: A sign reminds people of strict rules regarding cell phones in the theaters on opening day of the 28th Telluride Film Festival August 28, 2001 in Telluride, CO. A ringing phone during a screening will result in immediate ejection from the theater and no refund. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)